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Border Crackdown Bad News for Drug Smugglers

But scarcer drugs mean higher prices, more potential crime, say experts

FRIDAY, Sept. 28, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Heightened security at U.S. borders appears to be scaring away drug smugglers, but it also raises the prospect of higher prices for everything from marijuana to cocaine and heroin as supplies dwindle.

No one expects that the huge influx of illegal drugs from other countries will come to a standstill. But any major price hikes would be the first in two decades and could potentially change the underground landscape of drug use.

"Instability in the market leads to confusion and disorder," said Eric E. Sterling, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Criminal Justice Policy Foundation and a former attorney who advised the House Judiciary Committee on drug issues.

Security at the nation's borders with Mexico and Canada was stepped up to its highest level on Sept. 11 after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Since then, drug seizures have fallen dramatically.

From Sept. 11-23, U.S. Customs seized about 2 tons of drugs at Southern California border crossings, compared to almost 15 tons during the same period in 2000. Across the entire Southwest, from California to Texas, the amount of drugs seized during that period dropped from 22 tons in 2000 to fewer than 4.5 tons this year.

"If the crackdown keeps going, I'm sure we'll see higher prices and less availability," said Donald Thornhill, a spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Agency's office in San Diego.

Increased security within the United States on transportation, ranging from planes and trains to buses, could also put a damper on the drug trade, said Lt. Bill Baxter, a narcotics officer with the San Diego County Sheriff's Department.

Any price hikes would reverse a long-standing trend, said Sterling, whose foundation is a think tank that supports the liberalization of drug laws.

A large supply of illegal drugs has kept prices low for two decades. For example, a federal study found that a gram of cocaine typically sold for $169 in 1998, a huge drop from its price of $378 in 1981, he said. Cocaine also increased in purity over that time, as has heroin, which followed a similar pattern.

If drug prices go up, crime could rise too, Sterling said, as sellers fight among themselves. "The drug marketplace always resolves [major] conflicts through violence, because there's no court available," he said.

Experts pointed to the heroin shortage of the 1970s as an example of what happens when drug prices go up and supplies go down. "What's described to me about what happened back then is not a pretty picture," said Dr. Terry Horton, medical director of New York City's Phoenix House recovery center. "There were a lot of fairly ill people walking around in various stages of withdrawal."

But higher prices could also scare away casual drug users, added Peter Reuter, professor of public policy at the University of Maryland. His research found that about 25 percent of regular heroin users simply stopped using the drug after prices went up in the 1970s.

"They didn't switch to other opiates," Reuter said. "As one friend of mine said, they traded down to alcohol. For four or five years, that's what they did. When heroin became more available around 1980, they came back to the market."

The research suggests that a prolonged crackdown at the border could cause "a substantial reduction in drug-related problems," he added.

America's most popular illegal drug may escape any major price fluctuations because it is largely a homegrown product.

A prolonged border crackdown would mainly affect the supplies and prices of "BC Bud," a kind of high-grade marijuana made in the Canadian province of British Columbia, said Steven Hager, the New York City-based editor of High Times magazine, which supports marijuana use.

Supplies of cheaper, lower-grade marijuana from Mexico could also dry up, according to Keith Stroup, an attorney and executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), which advocates the legalization of marijuana.

There's a possibility, of course, that the drug supply will stay the same as smugglers find new routes to get contraband into the country.

"It's like a balloon. When you squeeze it in one end, it expands in another direction," said Vince Bond, a U.S. customs spokesman in San Diego. "Smugglers are trying to find the path of least resistance."

What To Do

Learn about which illegal drugs are most prevalent in your state by visiting this site created by the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

If you have a drug addiction problem and need a referral to a treatment program, visit Partnership for a Drug-Free America.

If you don't know what people are talking about when the conversation turns to drugs, take a look at this slang dictionary.

SOURCES: Interviews with Vince Bond, spokesman, U.S. Customs Service, San Diego; Eric E. Sterling, president, Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, Washington D.C.; Douglas Thornhill, spokesman, Drug Enforcement Agency, San Diego; Peter Reuter, Ph.D., professor of public policy, University of Maryland, College Park; Steven Hager, editor, High Times magazine, New York City; Keith Stroup, executive director, National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, Washington D.C.; Lt. Bill Baxter, narcotics officer, San Diego County Sheriff's Department; Terry Horton, M.D., medical director, Phoenix House Foundation, New York City
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